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The Story of World War I Ace Manfred Von Richthofen, AKA The Red Baron

Updated on November 28, 2013
Replica Fokker DR.I Triplane painted in the same colors as the Red Baron's plane, being flown at an air show.
Replica Fokker DR.I Triplane painted in the same colors as the Red Baron's plane, being flown at an air show. | Source

Early Life

Manfred Von Richthofen was born on May 2, 1892 in a small villa in the town of Schweidnitz, Silesia. Silesia is a region of Europe situated mostly in modern Poland with smaller parts in the modern Czech Republic and Germany - but back in the days before World War I, this region in its entirety was undisputed German territory.

Manfred's father Albrecht was a major in the German military at the time of Manfred's birth, and was determined to see his son join the military and continue a budding family tradition (Albrecht was among the first in the family to devote his life to a career of military service). Albrecht however was forced into early retirement when a courageous rescue of several other soldiers from a freezing river left him deaf and unable to carry on his regular duties.

As a child, Manfred learned to hunt with his uncle Alexander, who had been on hunting expeditions all over the world. Manfred's family was financially very secure - his family line could be traced back to the 1500's and relatives of his owned a respectable amount of land in Silesia, on which they cultivated crops and raised sheep. Manfred's father Albrecht was a Baron, a title of nobility ranked just above knighthood but below most other titles of nobility. Still, it was a very respectable title, and Manfred inherited the title upon his birth.

At age eleven Manfred's father enrolled him in the Wahlstatt Cadet school in Berlin. Manfred did poorly in academics at the school, complaining of its excessively disciplinarian methods. However, Manfred excelled in athletic activities. After six years at Wahlstatt, Manfred graduated to the Senior Cadet Academy at Lichterfelde. From there, Manfred completed a course at the Berlin War Academy and then joined the cavalry in 1912, where he was made a lieutenant and was stationed in what is today Milicz, Poland.

Life in the Cavalry and the Signal Core

Two years later, World War I rolled into Europe and with the cavalry conducting reconnaissance ahead of German's advance the German army rolled right over Belgium and a good portion of France until the French finally dug in and the perpetual stalemate of trench warfare stopped the Germans in their tracks just outside of Paris.

As the realities of trench warfare settled in, it became clear that there was no need for the cavalry to conduct reconnaissance in the way they had been doing during the war up until that point. Modern warfare had made the cavalry obsolete, even for scouting assignments. Manfred Richthofen was soon transferred to the Signal Corps, which was responsible for maintaining communications among units at the front - delivering messages and installing/maintaining communications infrastructure such as telephone lines.

Richthofen missed his reconnaissance activities and took an interest in becoming an air observer when he heard that the aviators in the new airplanes flying overhead had taken over the reconnaissance missions he missed so much. In the spring of 1915 Richthofen went to Cologne, Germany for training as an air observer.

Manfred Von Richthofen
Manfred Von Richthofen

The Eye in the Sky

During Richthofen's first flight at aviator school, he was overwhelmed by the roar and wind of the propeller and the discomfort of his ill-fitting garments and flight equipment. As the plane's spotter he was unable to communicate to the airplane's pilot his instructions on where to fly, so after several minutes of Richthofen's failed attempts to communicate with him the pilot decided that the time had come to land. Richthofen was frustrated with his inability to communicate with the pilot and simultaneously elated with the sense of being what he called "the master of the air." He had enjoyed the rush of flying immensely.

Richthofen continued his observer training and eventually got it right. On graduation from training he was sent to the eastern front to report on enemy troop movements for the first several months of his career as an aviator. Though he had still never flown an airplane himself, he was selected for transfer to a unit called "The Mail Pigeon Detachment," whose purpose it was to run bombing missions over England.

On September 1st, 1915 Richthofen experienced his first dogfight. Riding as an observer in a plane piloted by Lieutenant George Zeumer, Richthofen spotted his the first enemy aircraft he had ever seen in the skies at the same time as he was flying. Armed only with a rifle he took aim and fired several shots at the enemy plane, but failed to bring it down. Not long afterwards, while flying in an aircraft piloted by Lieutenant Osteroth, Richthofen caught sight of another enemy aircraft. This time, armed with a machine gun, Richthofen was able to bring the other plane down - behind enemy lines. Unfortunately when he attempted to report his first kill back at headquarters, he was told it did not count because the plane had crashed behind enemy lines and there were no independent witnesses to verify the enemy's demise at Richthofen's hands.

On October 1st, 1915 Richthofen met his predecessor and the man whose record for most all time kills he would eventually break. The man's name was Lieutenant Oswald Boelcke, and Richthofen happened to meet him by chance on a train bound for Metz. Richthofen, who at that time was a nobody, introduced himself and struck up a conversation. Eventually he expressed his frustration at having been unsuccessful in several attempts to bring down enemy airplanes over the past month. He asked Boelcke "Tell me honestly, how do you really do it?"

Boelcke laughed and explained "Good heavens, it indeed is quite simple. I fly in as close as I can, take good aim, shoot, and then he falls down."

Richthofen proceeded to form a rather close relationship with Boelcke, endeavoring to learn from him everything that he could in hopes of increasing his chances of bringing down more planes. They played cards together, went for walks, and Richthofen asked Boelcke many questions. Eventually Richthofen became convinced that to bring down more planes he needed to fly a single-seat Fokker, like the one Boelcke flew, rather than riding along as a passenger in the bulky observer planes he was used to flying in.

Of course, this would mean Richthofen would need to learn to fly a plane himself, and that is just what he set out to do.

An Ace is Born

Richthofen enlisted his friend Lieutenant Zeumer to teach him how to fly, and on October 10th, 1915, ten days after first introducing himself to Boelcke, Richthofen made his first solo flight. After passing the three tests required to become a fighter pilot, Richthofen received his pilot's certificate on Christmas Day of 1915. Richthofen was assigned to the 2nd Fighting Squadron and remained with that group for nearly a year.

In August of 1916, Oswald Boelcke again entered Richthofen's life, when he visited the 2nd Fighting Squadron on a scouting mission for talented pilots. Boelcke chose Richthofen and one other pilot to join a new squadron he was putting together called "Jagdstaffel 2" or "Hunting Squadron 2."

Though Richthofen already had two unconfirmed kills under his belt - one as a spotter and one as a fighter pilot with the 2nd Fighting Squadron, it wasn't until he joined Boelke's group and received formal training with his idol and mentor that he gained his first confirmed kills. In fact, Richthofen began collecting kills and trophies to go along with them.

Like many other pilots, Richthofen often took a piece of his enemy's plane from the crash site - such as a gun, a propeller or the aircraft's fabric serial number - but Richthofen also maintained a collection of his own unique type of trophies through which he memorialized his kills. Beginning with his very first kill, Richthofen ordered a two inch tall silver trophy from a Berlin based jeweler for each of his kills and a four inch silver trophy for every tenth kill. Richthofen had the kill number, type of airplane, number of crew, and the date of the kill engraved on each of his trophies.

Richthofen flew in Boelcke's squadron for several months before Boelke was involved in a mid-air collision with a friendly plane during a dogfight. Boelcke crashed into Lieutenant Erwin Bohme's plane while attempting to evade an enemy aircraft. Bohme was able to land his plane relatively safely, but as Boelcke fought to regain control of his aircraft one of the wings came off of his airplane and he lost all hope of landing safely. Boelcke was killed on impact when his plane slammed into the ground.

At this time Richthofen was already an ace, and with six kills was well on his way to achieving the nine kills required to earn him Germany's highest award for bravery in battle - the Pour le Merite - Germany's version of the Medal of Honor at that time. Over the next few weeks Richthofen acquired his 7th and 8th kills and the criteria was changed - now a pilot would need to achieve 16 kills before earning a Pour le Merit.

The Red Baron

Thirsty for recognition, Richthofen decided to paint his entire plane bright red after his ninth confirmed kill. Many other pilots painted parts of their planes - such as the nose or tail - a bright color so as to be recognizable to other pilots in the sky and observers on the ground, but it still proved difficult to distinguish planes from one another from the ground.With Richthofen's bright red paint covering the entirety of his airplane he suddenly became very recognizable, to friend and foe, pilot and pedestrian alike. His new bright red appearance also meant it was harder for him to sneak up on unsuspecting enemy planes. Still, when the red plane appeared, it grabbed the attention of soldiers and flyers and everyone who happened to see. With his steadily rising kill count Richthofen had already become a recognized name by this point - but now he was famous to friends and infamous to his enemies.

Manfred von Richthofen seen here with his Pour le Merit award.
Manfred von Richthofen seen here with his Pour le Merit award.

To the Germans, Richthofen was der röte Kampfflieger - The Little Red Battle Flier. To his enemies Richthofen was "The Red Falcon," "The Red Devil," "The Little Red," "The Jolly Red Baron," "The Bloody Baron," and, of course, "The Red Baron."

It did not take long for The Red Baron to earn the seven remaining confirmed kills he sought and on January 12th, 1917 he was finally awarded the Pour le Merit. Less than a week later he was made responsible for not only fighting and flying but for training pilots the art of dogfighting as well, when he was named the new leader of Jagdstaffel 11.

By the end of March 1917 The Red Baron had amassed a staggering 31 kills, bringing him near the record - held by his friend and personal hero Oswald Boelcke - which stood at 40 kills at the time of Boelcke's death.

With the onset of spring weather in April the conditions for flying changed along with the direction of the prevailing winds - and this change benefited the Germans. April of 1917 became known as Bloody April, and during that month Richthofen's kill total skyrocketed to a total of 52 - 21 of which were procured in the month of April alone. Germany had a new record holder for most enemy planes shot down and the Red Baron now stood alone as German's undisputed expert on dogfighting. No one else had even close to as many confirmed kills as The Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen.

Upon reaching his 61st kill, Richthofen found he could no longer continue his trophy collection, as the silver was needed for the war effort. He therefore elected to end his trophy collection at 60 rather than continue his collection using a gaudy alternative replacement material. Around this time the odds finally caught up with The Red Baron, and he was struck in the head by a bullet and seriously wounded. Amazingly he was able to land his plane, but suffered permanent headaches and other unpleasant after effects for the rest of his life.

After his first 60 kills, Richthofen finally began flying a Fokker triplane rather than the Albatross biplane he had been flying up until that time. It is this Fokker triplane, which he only flew for 8 months and in which he achieved only the final quarter of his kills, by which The Red Baron is still remembered today.

The high command constantly encouraged Richthofen to retire. They did not want to lose such a nationally celebrated war hero. He was worth more to them as a propaganda tool than as a fighter pilot. Richthofen consistently refused to retire, over and over again. He believed that as long as the men in the trenches had no respite, nor easy way to escape their likely fates then he deserved none either. Richthofen became increasingly depressed and had an increasingly dismal outlook on life. His headaches increased, but still he continued to fly his dangerous missions, and still his kill count continued to rise - until one day in April of 1918, when The Red Baron's luck finally ran out.

Allied Machine Gun emplacement on the front lines in France, spotting a German plane.
Allied Machine Gun emplacement on the front lines in France, spotting a German plane. | Source

The Death of the Red Baron and the Mystery of Who Killed Him

On April 18, 1918 Manfred von Richthofen - known much more widely to his enemies as The Red Baron - led his squadron of fighter planes far behind enemy lines, looking for allied aircraft. They were not disappointed, as their invasion of France's airspace was noticed by a squadron of allied fighters under the command of the Canadian pilot, Captain Arthur Roy Brown. The allied squadron gave chase and a dogfight ensued.

Not long after the opening of the dogfight, a plane piloted by Wilfred R. May bolted from the Ruckus and attempted to fly back towards home. May was a very inexperienced pilot and was a close friend of Captain Brown's. Brown had instructed May to break off and head for home should a dogfight break out in the skies that day.

It just so happened that when May made his break for it, he attracted the attention of The Red Baron, who saw the move and gave chase, believing May to be an easy kill. Richthofen was not the only one watching May, however, and Brown saw not only May's attempt to break away but also saw The Red Baron initiate pursuit. Brown then broke away from the fight as well and attempted to come to the aid of his good friend. As may zigged and zagged and Richthofen pursued, Brown caught up to the other two and began firing at the bright red Fokker triplane.

All three planes were flying very close to the ground, and eventually flew over a stretch of the front being held by a line of Australian soldiers - friendly to Brown and May, and very unfriendly to The Red Baron. Many of the Australian soldiers including riflemen and machine gunners fired up at Richthofen's tripe as Brown fired at The Red Baron from the cockpit of his own plane. Finally a shot from someone hit home, hitting Richthofen in the torso. He was able to make a somewhat controlled landing, but was dead by the time anyone on the ground could reach him.

When the Australian soldiers arrived at the scene of the wreck and realized whose plane they were standing in front of, the plane was ripped apart in a frenzied grab for souvenirs, making it effectively impossible to reconstruct the accident or tell for sure whether it was Brown's bullet or a bullet from the ground which brought the once-mighty Red Baron down from the sky. The controversy continues to this day, with some sources crediting Brown, while others credit the troops on the ground with firing the fatal shot.

In spite of the mystery, one thing is certain. With 80 kills at the time of his death, Manfred von Richthofen, known to his enemies as The Red Baron, was one of the greatest and most feared fighter pilots of all time, and his name will always remain a notable name in the history of aviation and air combat.

Even though he went down behind enemy lines, The Red Baron was so highly respected by his enemies that they honored him with a full military funeral.
Even though he went down behind enemy lines, The Red Baron was so highly respected by his enemies that they honored him with a full military funeral. | Source

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    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 2 years ago

      Thank you. I found the part about the beginning of The Red Baron's flying career especially interesting.

    • delia-delia profile image

      Delia 2 years ago

      Interesting three Editor Choices being on Manfred von Richthofen...all are interesting as as is yours...

      I have a Hub with a photo of MvR and my dad in a biplane with him, they were good friends...

    • Tyler Funk profile image
      Author

      Tyler Funk 3 years ago from Waterbury, Connecticut

      Thank you panpan, it was a joy to research this one!

    • panpan1972 profile image

      Panagiotis Tsarouchakis 3 years ago from Greece

      Interesting and informative hub!